Big Ideas, Small Talks


Kristina Johnson, CEO of Enduring Hydro and former undersecretary of Energy
(source: Public Domain)

Small talks are the bread and butter of graduate life. You know, those little pamphlets pinned to billboards across campus? Well, some of them don’t advertise an n’th tutoring service. They don’t advertise a social club, a new search engine or even a “Four year-old computer CHEAP!!!”. No, some of  these pamphlets advertise small talks, in rooms you didn’t even know existed, by people which the unassuming presentation belies their extraordinary background.

On Wednesday May 28th, the McGill Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design held one these conference talks on “Renewable Energy and the role of Engineers”. The talk was given by Kristina Johnson who was on campus to receive an honorary doctorate. She is an incredibly distinguished woman who held many prestigious positions, but who donned her engineering hat for the occasion. Well, that hat and the one of former undersecretary of Energy under Steven Chu during Barack Obama’s first term. Her role boiled down to this: she had to manage a 10.5 billion dollar portfolio of investments in renewable energy with the goal to reduce the United-States’ carbon emission by 83% based on 2005 emission levels by 2050. This is not a small feat.

It simply astonishes me that we have access to such presenters. These are the very sort of presentations that truly embody the academic spirit, I believe. It is the Erasmus legacy: hosting and honouring a foreign knowledgeable personality in exchange for their words of wisdom. When there is no obligation behind the attending, one truly appreciates the higher purpose of higher education.

Now of course, these talks don’t necessarily draw crowds, but at the same time the smaller number of people makes it seem like a more engaged audience. On Wednesday the room was packed, but it wasn’t big and so the casual atmosphere was preserved. Attendees of such talks tend to fall in a mix of categories and are usually identifiable upon their entrance (or pre-presence). See if you can spot them!

  • the faculty dignitaries
  • the field experts
  • the interested graduate (and sometimes undergraduate) students
  • the experienced workers
  • the supervisor followers

Members of the faculty and dignitaries are there because they are organizing the event and hopefully because they are keen on the subject matter much like the field experts or the interested students. Field experts and interested students truly want to learn more and ask questions.

What I dub experienced workers are those people that have worked in the industry and might still do in some form. They are sometimes older (although not necessarily). They are quite noticeable in that they will use this opportunity to either sell their products or simply share their stories during the question period. At the first few such talks I attended, their interventions were always a little off-putting, but in the end I got used to it. And why not? After all, these impromptu telling of experiences are just another side of the dialogue. They remind us of the practical nature of what is talked about.

Finally, the supervisor followers are unmistakable: students that appear as a flock either headed or pushed forward by their supervisors! There is nothing wrong with that; we are all busy as students and sometimes we would rather be doing something else with our time! It is part of the game. Although it is quite a sight to see sometimes…

All in all, the talk was surprisingly inspiring. It was much less depressing than an Al Gore presentation and Mrs. Johnson managed to keep it light with her tales of eco-guerilla warfare. Watch out if you invite her over, she might change your light bulbs for LEDs!

Don’t miss out on those opportunities and be on the lookout for small new fliers on billboards. Their advertised sessions are the embodiment of the spirit of the higher education institution. They soar without leaving the ground from sight. Truly they are sessions of big thoughts in small rooms.

One response to “Big Ideas, Small Talks”

  1. sarahsabboobeh says:

    That’s pretty cool. I’ve been here 6 years and hardly hear about these events so thanks a lot for sharing! Also sustainability FTW! It makes me happy to see women making advances and being recognized for their achievements in science and engineering.

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